Readers in the Richmond, Virginia region might be interested to know that John Tyler Community College (at its Chester and Midlothian Campuses) are hosting twelve programs that are open to the public (and one more for the staff, faculty, and students of the college) during the month of February to commemorate Black History Month. The topics for the public are not your typical conversations of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks (who are great people to talk about but the experience of those of African descent cannot be reduced to three people). The flyer below gives you the details of the programs, including one I am doing on United States Colored Troops during the 1864-1865 Petersburg Campaign.
I recently found a powerful letter by Sergeant Thomas B. Webster of the 43rd United States Colored Troops which was written in December 1864 while the unit was stationed on the Bermuda Hundred lines (located in Chesterfield County). When people say (not the readers of my blog I know!) “History doesn’t matter.” Or “That’s something that happened 150 years ago!” we should consider how the past and present intersect. We have seen that these past several years when we think about the events in Florida, Missouri, New York City, Ohio, and the list goes on. We also hear on-going conversation about equality in pay for work performed. And Webster’s words should make us question the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key components of the Voting Rights Act nearly two years ago. I have placed my editorial notes in brackets “[ ].”
Sgt. Webster wrote:
“I hope that the day is not far distant, when peace and liberty shall extend over the whole of this distracted and bleeding country, and man shall be recognized as man, be he white or black.”
In his demands for equality and citizenship Webster exclaimed, “Have they [referring to black soldiers] not fought bravely at Port Hudson, Fort Pillow, Fort Pulaski [it’s unclear why he mentioned this as there were no black soldiers in the Federal army when Fort Pulaski was captured in 1862], and on the bloody fields of Virginia and Georgia, besides many other places? Yet, notwithstanding all the gallantry displayed by colored soldiers, there are a few men in our Northern cities, who do not want to give the colored man his equal rights. But these men do not rule congress. I hope that the day is not far distant, when we shall see the colored man enjoying the same rights and privileges as those of the white man of this country.”
Lastly, Sergeant Webster addressed the equal pay for equal soldiering crisis. “I recently saw an article in a newspaper, in reference to the colored soldiers in the army. Said article asserted, that the colored troops were to receive the same pay as their white companions in arms. This is one more step in the right direction.”
I am pleased to take part in this program, but, I can’t help but think that Sergeant Webster might be disappointed that there even needed to be on-going fights in the 1860s and beyond over access to quality (and truly equal) education. Why didn’t that come as a part of his military service? He may have wondered why Maggie Walker could not simply be an entrepreneur but also had to fight for women’s suffrage and be a civil rights activist in Richmond long before anyone though about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. Undoubtedly he would have found these Virginians courageous, but if he were an observer in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he certainly couldn’t have helped but to think when all citizens would be treated fairly under the law and with respect as human beings.